Air pollution: 'the invisible killer'

| 27th November 2018
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Forthcoming book charts the rising global threat of air pollution - read an exclusive extract here.

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Humans can live for three weeks without food and three days without water – but only three minutes without air.

Yet we simply take our air for granted. It’s always there. It’s everywhere. The air pollution that we breathe has changed a great deal over the centuries. It is largely invisible to us but it is having a significant impact on our health and the health of our children. 

More than 90 percent of the world’s population is exposed to air pollution concentrations that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. Globally, four and a half million people died pre- maturely from particle and ozone pollution in 2015. So why don’t we understand air pollution better? And how have we allowed it to build to the crisis we find today? 

International reputation 

The face of air pollution has changed. Modern air pollution does not look like the thick black industrial smoke from the past. London’s international reputation as the world’s most polluted city, beset with pea-souper smog, has been passed to Beijing.

We are all familiar with images of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and the Forbidden City shrouded in haze and the city’s residents wearing protective masks. Despite this coverage in the news, Beijing does not head the WHO list of the world’s most polluted cities. It was 56th in 2016 and dropped to 187th in 2017.

Of the worst fifty, the vast majority are in East Asia: twenty-four cities are in India, eight are in China, three in Iran and three in Pakistan. Six of the worst fifty are in the Middle East, including four in Saudi Arabia.

At the other end of the scale we find small towns in Iceland, Canada, the US and Scandinavia are some of the cleanest. There are some large cities near the bottom of the list too; including Vancouver and Stockholm, showing that air pollution is not an inevitable part of city life. 

As an air pollution scientist at King’s College London, my research has focused on the sources of urban air pollution and how these affect people’s health. I still lead the London network, the largest urban net- work in Europe.

Global problem 

Over the last twenty-five years I have tracked changes in the air that Londoners breathe, given evidence to government and worked alongside health researchers and air pollution scientists from around the world.

I have measured how London’s industrial pollution and problems with petrol cars have been replaced by diesel car pollution and home wood-burning.

Around the world many people look to London’s low emission zone as an example of action to control the problem, but if it is so effective then why are Londoners still suffering from poor air?

Writing this book has allowed me to explore the real, global problem of air pollution. Expanding beyond my London base I will take you from Paris and Los Angeles to India and New Zealand in a bid to understand modern air pollution.

The smogs in London and Los Angeles, Scandinavian forest die-back, the Volkswagen scandal and the recent pollution problems across south-east Asia have all prompted steps to clean our air. We will be exploring the impact that air pollution has on our health; the complex shifting political agenda of air pollution control; the tension between public health and government regulation; and the simple, yet crucial, denial of any problem in the first place.

Shared resource

There are huge injustices at the heart of the air pollution problem. By using our air to dispose of their waste, polluters are destroying a shared resource and avoiding the full cost of their actions. They leave all of us who breathe poor air to pay the price through our health and taxes. 

Scientists have been investigating the impacts of air pollution since medieval times. Increasingly, we tend to focus on the latest discoveries and findings. The lessons from the past are often forgotten but many of them have huge relevance to the challenges that we face today.

I am continually impressed by the insights of scientists who were working with hand-pumped samplers, home-made glassware in their laboratories, and calculating their results with slide rules.

This book will revisit some of these old investigations and discoveries and tell the stories of the people who made them. 

Yet when it comes to the disastrous effects of air pollution on human health, it seems astonishing that insight was sorely lacking for many centuries. This might seem incredible, but it was not until the 1950s that the harm from air pollution was recognised. We are still learning.

Lifelong impacts

In 2016 the Royal College of Physicians drew together the latest research to show how the lifelong impacts from air pollution start in the womb, go on to damage children’s lungs and shorten adult lives. 

There are many calls for action but fewer examples of positive outcomes in the battle for clean air.

Some plans have not worked as well as hoped and many have created new problems.

Air pollution is a global challenge that still needs to be tackled alongside climate change and the creation of healthy cities in which to live. 

This Author 

Dr Gary Fuller is an air pollution scientist at King's College London. This article is an extract from his forthcoming book The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution – and How We Can Fight Back (Melville House UK, 2018).

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